Saturday, November 22, 2008

grammar technology cont'd

I'm using this weblog to write down my thoughts as I'm mulling over a lot of different things. There is no secret here; actually all of CESL has access to this weblog, can see it, change it or whatever; furthermore, most of what I write is not secret either. As far as I know, grammar-check was installed in every word program in every computer in CESL; although some programs have the new Word, some do not, but nevertheless all have grammar-check, and it's similar, as far as I know, on each; no one has ever mentioned disabling it, or giving us the choice whether we wanted it installed or not. It's like spell-check; it's part of the machine.

Now, it's not clear to me whether that's good or bad, but several things have become obvious. One, it's influence is not minor; it changes much of what they write, much of the time. This means that not only do we not see exactly what they know or don't, we also don't see what they've learned, or whether they've learned. We have another authority in our midst, and in whatever way, everyone has come to live with this.

Let's consider what happens. I give a writing assignment at the highest level; usually there is plenty of time to finish it. Some students use grammar-check as they write; I can see them consulting the computer advisor to tell them when to change something and how to change it. Some wait until they are done, and then go through it methodically, making choices for both spell-check and grammar-check, asking the computer if they want, what's the reason. Some, I am pretty sure, never consult the reason, but nevertheless make deals with the language until the green line goes away. And some ignore it altogether; either they don't know what the green line is, or they choose to ignore it, or they run out of time. Sometimes people are inconsistent; they clearly use spell-check on one day, and clearly don't on another. This could be because of time, or because of varying perceptions of the importance of the assignment, or how badly it is necessary to spell right, or use proper grammar. After all, in many cases, there is very little punishment for using wrong grammar; I have done this delilberately.

Yet, what they produce still manages to break legions of rules. It is abundantly clear that their natural grammar is much weaker than that of similar classes that came through the system years, or terms, ago. They are not putting together simple sentences well; they have no time on their verbs; they haven't bothered to learn simple grammatical tricks like making simple comparatives (more ___ than ____). My complaints go on and on; no reason to get me started here.

I'm inclined to write out the data so that I can see it better, and see what they do, how the machine changes it, why the machine would not change some of it, and why the machine changes some things systematically, both positive and negatively (from so-called "false positives", like passives, to actives, and correct changes, from singular-plural mismatches to other things). I'm curious exactly what it is doing, and what that means to us as teachers. But here I have another problem: I have not asked them if they minded being part of a grand experiment. It is, after all, a class; my job is to teach them, not to systematically grab what they write and publish with it.

Yet, there are all kinds of things happening. One is, they are publishing quite a bit of it, making it public, with only the grammar-check and not any other human intervention. Another- they are writing volumes of things, good and bad, about all nature of things; there is plenty of data. And finally, and I'm convinced of this: they are using grammar-check on almost all of it.

One way to get at what grammar-check is doing is to disable the machine, or to make them write things out in hand. That would certainly be a possibility. And it would be a possibility for all classes, all the time. In other words, teach them good grammar in isolation, regardless of what they can get a machine to point out for them. This would be good for my study, certainly, because I would get a better picture of what they are starting out with, which I think is a picture we sorely lack at this point, especially in the high levels. But as an overall teaching strategy, I'm not sure it's the answer, because it ignores the fact that, wherever they are going, they will probably have grammar-check with them. It would make more sense to teach them how to use it well, how to put it in perspective, how to make good grammar before they put it through GC.

What to do? Good question.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

passive aggressive

Fourteen years ago, we taught students to use passive voice in scientific reports, because that's what scientists did. Mice were placed in a maze and were observed, etc. While making a report, the scientist removed himself/herself from the picture with the passive voice.

But the tide turned against the passive, and the prevailing opinion especially among social scientists was that it wasn't cool to deny one's responsibility, so the better writers just made those sentences active.

Now grammar-check, at least the prevailing grammar-check on the new Word 2008, has gone ahead and considered passive wrong, giving writers a green line under passive constructions and suggesting they iron them out and make them active like good writers do.

There are several problems with this. First, passive constructions aren't wrong; they're just bad style, and even then, they're not always bad style. Second, grammar-check is passing up boatloads of other bad grammar that is wrong, so it seems a little misguided to pick on something that's easy enough for a computer to find, but which really doesn't need to be changed all that badly.

Which brings up my last point. Grammar-check is being used by ESL students at all levels, all the way down to the point where they are first learning passive, but also, at the point where they are trying to produce all manner of interesting variants of good English. How are they supposed to know wrong from bad style? Obviously they don't. These days, when you present passive voice, or even discuss it with them, they look at you with a slightly quizzical look, as if to say, I know someone who calls this wrong. We have a case of conflicting authorities.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

green line to the commons

No sooner did I begin to focus on passive, and the interesting set of verb constructions that my students come up with daily, than this afternoon, first thing, one of my better students called me over and asked me to explain a green line that was under a perfectly grammatical passive sentence; I couldn't find any grammatical problems with the sentence, and eventually I walked away and on to other pressing business.

Several things are remarkable about the event; I will get the exact sentence as soon as possible, as I had to leave her paper at school where the printer broke down minutes before I had to leave at 5:00, thus causing a certain amount of disorganization. But, I suspect a number of patterns here, one of which is that, as I have learned, grammar-check simply doesn't like passive, even when, given a certain noun and certain verb, passive is the best option. As a line-editor I tend to take the noun and verb given to me, and make the passive correctly, because it is easier for me, wanting to write as few words as possible, to add a "was" or "is" and leave the noun and verb in place. The student, after all, has supplied the noun and verb; why should I change them? Grammar-check, however, doesn't see it that way. Why not rewrite the sentence active? It's usually possible. But it requires rewriting the entire sentence.

What happens, I believe, is that students rewrite the whole sentence, and end up with a misformed but active sentence that grammar-check doesn't mind. This doesn't mean that they started out with a correct sentence; it means that the process of negotiating with the green line ultimately led them to a misformed active sentence that, ultimately, was acceptable to grammar-check.

More about this later. A collection of these "misformed actives" will follow, as soon as possible.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

more on blogging

Downes, S.: Educational blogging.

this is your brain on technology

ok ok so this site is getting posts since April. That's terrible. I have no excuse, absolutely none. I have reasons, but no excuse.

Reasons: One: too busy. Two: I wrote proposals about blogs for the TESOL ("When everyone publishes everything" was my favorite) but they were rejected for the first time; the chat one, however, was accepted. My thoughts about chat are here. But there's more to it than that.

Blogs have become somewhat humdrum; they have a little dip in popularity; they're a little too static and permanent for people. On Facebook, however, it's a happening thing, things you write disappear after a while. No pressure on you to make it a work of art, or make it permanent. So the world to some degree has left the blog media to its politics, its mommy blogs, and the static world of what we used to call "media." Using them to teach? How pedestrian.

Now in my own teaching world they are still lively; students have good ones; the classes have good ones; things happen. I still stand by them. I just take them for granted. Of course we put all our papers on blogs...why else would we write them? Of course we separate the abstract from the paper, and link it...why else would we write one? Yet, when it came time to write proposals, I was tapped out on the subject, and still am. Don't know if I want to do another showcase on the same topic...

I was drawn back to this blog for other reasons.

Spell-check: Good or Bad?

The new direction of my research is this: I am convinced that these programs, spell-check and grammar-check, influence the way we learn. I am not sure whether it is good or bad but I suspect that some elements of it are bad. Of course, one argument goes: why should we learn to spell if a machine will do it for us? It is possible that with a good enough grammar-check, we won't need to learn grammar either...then of course I might be out of a job. But I don't think this is going to happen right away.

This post contains a very simple but basic principle. This teacher is very self-aware and noticed the change in his own behavior from when he switched from a program with a comprehensive spell-check to one with a more klunky, awkward one: he learned faster with the second. The harder the work, the more you gain by learning; the more you gain, the faster you learn. Thus spell-check, by making correct spellings easily available, make people learn more slowly, or not at all.

It is well-known, I think, that spell-check has made the world into poorer spellers. We no longer see non-words on paper, but we also see a lot more wrong words, since spell-check does not tell you which one is right. And people don't look it up. Today I read about the permits in Egypt (they are famous; mummies are buried in them) and was fortunately, by context, able to figure out what the topic was. So you have people doing their best and still ending up way off base. But a more pertinent question is: does their learning catch up to them? Do they learn spelling more slowly, not at all, or what?

This is your brain: this is your brain on technology.

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